Child, Youth, and Family Studies, Department of


Date of this Version

Winter 2014


Journal of Comparative Family Studies 45:1 (2014), pp. 31-53.


Copyright (c) 2014 Journal of Comparative Family Studies


Modernization theory offers possible explanations for family changes related to advances in science and technology, and socio-economic development in industrial societies. Modernization impacts family structure, relationship, values and beliefs. Families become nuclear while people become mobile and the society becomes urban. Economic development provides employment opportunities outside the birthplace. Away from kinship network, a nuclear family is less influenced and controlled by elder members in the extended family in fulfilling its traditional roles and obligations (Parsons, 1943). The changes occur in all societies although they may vary in pace across societies (Goode, 1982). Modernization theory is criticized for valuing Western practices and ignoring other cultural and nonwestern experiences (Brugger &Hanna, 1983) and is challenged for the linear causal relationship posited between industrialization and social changes (Hareven, 1976; 2001). In spite of the criticism, widely accepted is its proposition that nuclear families increase with industrialization and urbanization. Such an increase of nuclear families has been observed in China during its current socio-economic transition (Hu, 2004; Peng & Mao, 1994; Wang, 2007).

China has seen a rapid urbanization and industrialization, and economic development since its economic reform started in 1978, first in rural and then urban areas. Chinese per capita GDP had grown 14.7 times by 2010, with at least 6% annual rate and double digits in 8 out of 22 years (NBSC, 2011). Family incomes have increased and living conditions have improved while the gap grows between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, and the coastal and the inland. China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty in the last three decades (World Bank, 2012). Around the same time, the Chinese government began to implement One Child Family Policy. Meanwhile, Chinese families have undergone noticeable changes in structure and relationship. While traditional extended families exist, there occur various forms of Chinese families, i.e., nuclear families, single-parent families, families with double income and no kid (DINKs), single person households and cohabitant households. Some scholars predict that China will follow in the footsteps of family modernization in Western industrial societies. They believe Chinese marriage and family have declined in importance. These changes are viewed as the weakening of family functioning (Wu & Li, 2012; Yue & Yuan, 2008), filial piety and familial collectivism, and growing emphasis on individualism and potential crisis in elderly care (Li, 2011; Meng, 2008; Sun, 2008; Wang, 2008).

Although families around the world bear many similarities in values, strengths and challenge, they all have unique characteristics shaped by their historical, cultural, social and economic context. For example, in China, individualism had been and is still seen, to a great extent, as the bad influences from the West. Pursuing personal interests is viewed negatively as selfish, irresponsible and demonstrating lack of control. This belief is being challenged during Chinese social, economic transition. The changes in the social and economic context have impacted beliefs about marriage and family, and family life practice, e.g., living arrangements and care of children and elderly. One ofthe many changes is abolishing the old pension system. Urban parents who expected to receive pensions provided by the workplace have found themselves dependent on their children in retirement. Rural parents do not have pensions and have to completely rely on their children for their old age. Children may become the maj or source of some parents' financial support. During the social and economic reform, planned economy is being replaced by a marketing economy and the old job security system is replaced by competition. All these changes have led to wealth and a dramatic improvement in living conditions and at the same time brought about uncertainty and instability in an individual and family's life. As a result, Chinese families as a life-boat have become even more important than ever for family members. With One-Child Per Family Policy, Chinese parents and grandparents become only-child centered. Unlike industrial countries China relies on families rather than a sophisticated social security system to care for the elderly, and values collectivism more than individualism. It does not have a governing system based on Western democratic ideology. Therefore, the transformations of Chinese families during the social and economic development may have unique patterns and trajectories. The current paper critically analyzes the studies of Chinese families over the past 30 years to understand the changes in family relationship, values and structure since the rapid economic development started. Three questions are asked: 1) Has Chinese family become nuclear in structure and diverse in form? 2) Have Chinese shifted their values from family collective interests to individual interests? 3) Has Chinese marriage declined in importance?